Yearlings -- a Critical Year of Transition
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, February 5, 2011.)
“I shot a fat yearling buck – only had nubbins on his head, but he’ll sure be good eatin’.”
They've graduated from mama’s
tutelage, but yearling bucks
still have much to learn.
We’ve all heard many comments like that, and it’s not wrong to congratulate that hunter. But hunters who’ve said it have made a mistake. It’s not a mistake in shooting what they shot. It’s a mistake in what they called it.
A well-fed buck with nubbins on his head isn’t a yearling. It’s a fawn – less than six months old in the fall deer seasons. You don’t have to call them fawns if you don’t want to – in Maine they call them lambs.
Many hunters believe a yearling is a deer in its first year, but it isn’t. A yearling is a deer that has reached its first birthday – a deer in its second year. If it’s a buck, he might be a spike, he might be a forkhorn, or he might be bigger.
Almost every yearling buck is wearing his first rack, and those are the bucks that antler restrictions are designed to save for another year.
Yearling bucks are the deer that whitetail behavior expert Charlie Alsheimer equates to 13-year old boys. These are the bucks that are for the first time beginning to feel the effects of testosterone in their bodies.
Yearling bucks are the deer that have recently had their mothers’ apron strings severed and have dispersed to new territories from five to 20 miles away. They’re not stupid, but they are inexperienced as they face their first winter in new surroundings without mama. They’re trying to figure out how to survive. They don’t know every tree, every cropfield, every creekbed, every hillside, every thicket like they will in their third year.
The yearling is in a critical year of transition. Graduation from mama’s tutelage doesn’t mean yearling bucks don’t still have much to learn. Newly dispersed into unknown territories, yearlings have entered a new stage of survival school.
But old habits die hard and the yearling continues to seek relationships with does. He’s surprised when adult does avoid him, even drive him off. But, they must do that – they have their own young to care for.
This forces yearlings to get acquainted with other bucks in their neighborhood. They join bachelor groups and begin being sorted in the pecking order.
Those bachelor groups are important to the socialization of bucks. The younger bucks often groom the older bucks, and sometimes get the favor returned. Older bucks learn to tolerate younger bucks, and the interaction often forms a bond.
So, here’s where the bond with older bucks benefits the yearlings. When the rut is over and they regroup as bachelors to pal around with bucks that have a hunting season or two under their belts, they learn new life skills. By soldiering up with bucks that outrank him, the yearling will learn how to make survival decisions on his own.
Before antler restrictions came along, yearling bucks made up most of the deer harvest in Pennsylvania. One reason for that, besides the fact that they were legal game, was the fact that we had few older bucks and yearlings became pinball bucks, bouncing off one hunter or another until a bullet found its mark.
Most are now spared that fate, and live to 2½, 3½, or more.
Next deer season, keep this in mind. When you head out in pursuit of an antlered buck, you’re not hunting inexperienced yearlings. You’re not hoping for a confused, reckless, testosterone-loaded juvenile to present a shot as he dashes by.
You’re now hunting a veteran warrior who knows better how to avoid you than you know how to find him. He’s likely too smart to bump into you accidentally, and if he does he knows how to give you the slip.